Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Indianapolis Colts check in at No. 29.
It’s as if the Mayflower vans returned to Indianapolis. The Colts’ cornerstones, who once made this franchise a perennial Super Bowl contender, have relocated. There hasn’t been this much movement since that 1984 arrival from Baltimore. Almost overnight, after a 2–14 collapse, owner Jim Irsay’s intuition told him to part with Peyton Manning, the NFL’s only four-time MVP, who underwent four neck/spine surgeries in 21 months. Vice chairman Bill Polian, a six-time NFL Executive of the Year, was replaced by 40-year-old general manager Ryan Grigson, who had an eye for spotting talent in Philadelphia. Uninspiring head coach Jim Caldwell was supplanted by fiery Baltimore defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
The Colts begin anew with No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck and so many roster spots to fill around the promising Stanford quarterback. Fans be advised — everything can’t be fixed overnight.
Coordinator Bruce Arians favors a two-tight end scheme, and the Colts added two of the best in the 2012 draft in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Fleener was Luck’s go-to guy in college because he’s 6'6" and fast. Allen will be physical in shedding coverage. That’s key, because an offensive line no longer anchored by center Jeff Saturday has been patched together and will need time. Luck will want to take advantage of as many three-step drops as possible.
When looking at Luck, think Manning with mobility. He learned from Manning, who had a young Luck at his passing camp as a student and counselor. He prepares like Manning, too. Before the draft, the rookie spent three weeks studying NFL film with former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, an old-school guy who gushed about the young passer.
Pagano has insisted from Day 1 that he wants to run. Delone Carter is a second-year bruiser who emerged as a starter but lost the job because of fumbles. Donald Brown can bounce it outside with his speed but has never lived up to being a first-round pick. Rookie Vick Ballard could be a quicker Carter. In theory, sure, the idea is to take pressure off Luck so he doesn’t have to throw 40 times per game, which would expose him to aggressive pass rushes.
The Colts came up a few million dollars short of overpaying to re-sign wide receiver Pierre Garcon. They instead brought back Reggie Wayne, who offered to fly to California to work out with Luck while the quarterback completed his college degree. Slot receiver Austin Collie is effective, one year removed from a spate of concussions. After that, it’s iffy. Former St. Louis second-round pick Donnie Avery assures he can still burn, but he didn’t show it with Tennessee last year. Rookie receiver/returner T.Y. Hilton is so fast, the Colts moved up into the third round to draft him. But he’s also small, and it’s always uncertain how little guys will hold up.
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Pagano repeatedly utters the term “hybrid” to describe this gradual transformation to a 3-4 scheme. So sometimes the Colts will show the familiar 4-3 with Pro Bowl pass-rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as ends. Then they shift to a 3-4 with the bookends becoming outside linebackers. Mathis was re-signed because he was born to fly around like this. Freeney’s adjustment is wait-and-see. The Colts reportedly tried to trade him; he’ll count $19 million against the cap in the final year of his contract, and moving him would save $14 million. The Colts’ all-time leading sack man stayed because he still gets after the quarterback. If he doesn’t succeed as an outside linebacker, he will become a situational pass-rusher or they could shift him back to end, admittedly a different role in a 3-4. They need more than the 19 tackles he made last season.
Pagano added familiar faces from Baltimore in end Cory Redding, safety Tom Zbikowski and tackle Brandon McKinney. Redding gets decent pocket pressure and is responsible against the run. Zbikowski lost his job with the Ravens and is anxious for a second chance. The hunch is that rookie nose tackle Josh Chapman (316 pounds) will eventually beat out McKinney. Chapman is incredibly strong and is an ideal plugger.
This secondary is worrisome. Cornerback Jerraud Powers is excellent, when he’s not hurt. He’s missed 10 games in two seasons and is entering a contract year. The other corners are Kevin Thomas, Brandon King, Chris Rucker and Terrence Johnson — all relatively young and unproven. Thomas had the job in minicamp, but stay tuned. The fact that the Colts were frustrated by just missing on a couple of cornerbacks in the draft reinforces that they feel a need to upgrade the position. Perhaps steady safety Antoine Bethea can help the corners, while Zbikowski, who boxes to stay in shape, will thrive as a run-stopper.
Inside linebacker Pat Angerer is a tackling machine; his 148 ranked fourth in the league. But even an obvious plus is an indication of how this defense is in the evolutionary stages. At 235 pounds, he’s more ideal for the outside, but the Colts don’t have guys who fit the bigger, stronger inside linebacker profile.
Adam Vinatieri showed he was worth the new contract he signed before the 2011 season as he hit on 23-of-27 field goals, including 52- and 53-yarders. Punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee has excellent hang time and boomed 41 touchbacks in 63 kickoffs. The Colts haven’t had a great returner in ages. They hope Hilton is that answer. Irsay made it clear to his new regime the need to fix “ridiculous” special teams, be that covering kicks or returning them, something that had become “a broken record.”
Final Analysis: 3rd in the AFC South
Opponents enjoyed a 103.9 passer rating last season, so a Colts optimist will suggest that it can’t get much worse. Don’t be so sure. While the Colts could show progress in this new hybrid defense, not getting to the quarterback enough will expose an already shaky secondary. If this defensive transition implodes, take heart, fans. The release of big contracts for the likes of tight end Dallas Clark, middle linebacker Gary Brackett and even a $10 million hit this season for Manning means roughly $40 million in dead cap money this year, but it sets up the Colts as big spenders in free agency in 2013. Compensatory picks will help provide another big draft class. The Colts can address their defensive needs.
A weak schedule with the likes of Cleveland, Miami and Buffalo at home suggests that outscoring some foes is doable. Luck has enough talented targets, and the play-calling should protect him while the line and run game shake out. The team’s 99.6 yards rushing per game ranked 26th, but the Colts trailed most of the time. They managed 4.2 yards per carry, which would be enough to help Luck. Manning went 3–13 as a rookie with proven stars like wide receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Marshall Faulk. Luck will find a way to win a few, then the Colts will tinker again and take the next step toward building a playoff contender in 2013.
Related: 2012 Indianapolis Colts Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Not Ready For Primetime
Once a night-game favorite, the Colts have 15 kickoffs at 1 p.m. The only deviation is an 8:20 p.m. Nov. 8 visit to Jacksonville on NFL Network. The Colts had four primetime games in 2011 — a fifth at rival New England was flexed to the afternoon. Talk about a dose of reality. By the way, Peyton Manning’s new team, Denver, has five primetime games.
Build The Monster
New head coach Chuck Pagano set the agenda for offseason conditioning by issuing blue T-shirts to players with the slogan, “Build The Monster.” Fans bought in, too, immediately asking when the shirts would be marketed for purchase.
Andrew Luck is the seventh quarterback the Colts have selected in the first round of the draft. He joins George Shaw (1955), Bert Jones (1973), Art Schlichter (1982), John Elway (1983), Jeff George (1990) and Peyton Manning (1998).
Don’t Say the ‘R’ Word
Players made it clear in minicamp that they do not accept the term “rebuilding” to describe the team’s sweeping changes. “If you want to think we’re rebuilding, whatever, think it,” Angerer says. “We’ll fight your ass. Let’s go.”
Irsay Still Loves Twitter
Colts owner Jim Irsay isn’t shy with 164,000-plus Twitter followers. Amid speculation that pass-rusher Dwight Freeney was on the trading block, Irsay tweeted, “The only people hoping for trade with Free#93 are the ones that have to play against us…he’s MAYHEM with plenty of gas left in the tank!” When Peter King of Sports Illustrated criticized the Colts for using their first four picks on offensive players, Irsay tweeted, “Hey Peter King, we had NO defense, unlike now, in 1998, n B Polian took 4 Offensive picks n looking back at ur comments then, u said Great Draft!”
Not tackling Twitter
One of the few players who insists he won’t waste his time on Twitter is linebacker Pat Angerer. “I don’t care what I do,” he says. “I don’t think anybody else would care what I’m doing today.”
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Wed., July 25
Order your 2012 Indianapolis Colts Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
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Related: 2012 Indianapolis Colts Schedule Analysis